My heels click as I walk down the court hall. I have on my best suit, a navy-blue Brooks Brothers ensemble with a short jacket and matching A-line skirt. I still owe on my credit card for the outfit. My heart thumps. I grip my legal pad. It’s day one of my clerkship and I’m about to meet the judge I’ll be clerking for.
He opens the door before I can knock.
“Come in,” he says. He’s a tall, rugged man. He’s clean shaven and isn’t wearing his robe.
Instead, he wears a white collared shirt and khakis. He strolls behind his monstrous desk, sits down, and leans back in his chair. He stares at me, as if he’s waiting for me to quote the Constitution verbatim. Or maybe he’s reading my mind. It’s hard to tell. I’m afraid he can see my heart beating out of my chest. I’m so nervous. I’m new to this. Not because I’m a new law grad, but because I’m the first attorney in the family. The only experience I’ve had with judges is watching court tv.
“Well,” he says. “Tell me, who are you? Where did you come from? And, by the way, I don’t think they sent me your resume so I’m going to need a copy of that too. Make sure you’re up for the task.” He talks stern, with his best serious face. But I’m not afraid of him anymore. I see his smile cracking underneath.
This is the beginning of our friendship. He’ll be one of the many mentors I meet along my journey, which at this moment, is at its very inception. I may have survived law school, but I’m not a real attorney just yet. Not just because I haven’t passed the Bar but because I haven’t earned it. I’ll earn it soon enough. I’ll spend the next year buried in the law library and closet sized office that’s big enough to hold only a printer, chair, and computer. I’ll sit buried under law books and piles of printed Lexis Nexis articles, reading countless amounts of legal research. I’ll spend day after day in court, learning very quickly not to sit in the first row because other attorneys spy on my notes. Soon, I’ll help make real decisions that affect real people’s lives, not just quote some fifty- or hundred-year-old Appellate case on a law school exam that has no effect on anything real. I’ll merely begin to understand what being a lawyer means.
Until then, I’ll go to his chambers every Monday morning prepared and ready to discuss each case on the docket. I’m prepared even when I’m sick, when I’ve been up all night with a sick child, or just plain exhausted. It’s eye opening, all of it. It’s surreal to think that my research and the decisions I propose will affect real lives. Who do I think I am? What if I’m wrong? What do I know? I’m just a recent law grad, still memorizing rules to pass the Bar. I’m certainly not the judge which is exactly why I’m obligated to write “It has been submitted” on every decision I propose. The judge always makes the final call.
There are so many cases. Families fight with insurance companies over whose fault it is their house burned down. Oil spills damage town soil. Parents fight over child custody; landlords want their rent. There are cases on slander, retaliation, and wrongful firings. Bad contracts and labor law cases pile high on my desk. All this amongst foreclosures, estate disputes and medical malpractice. We sit together in his chambers and decipher them all.
“What do you think?” He asks. The sun casts rays of light on his desk. I lean back in my chair, legal pad on my lap, like always. I set my pen down. He’s called a recess on a landlord tenant case. The defendant is an old man, pro se. He’s come to court minus a shower and wearing clothes that could use a washing. He has a long scruffy beard. He’s failed to file the court paperwork he needs to save himself from eviction.
“Well,” I say. “I think if you go by the book, you have legal standing to rule for the plaintiff.” I pause. “But, as a human being, I think – look at him, the defendant. He’s pro se and hell most lawyers can’t figure out what needs to be filed half the time around here. They call the clerk’s office every day asking for help. How is this man, without legal counsel to know what to do? I think as the judge you can and should give him an extension. At least a chance. He’ll be homeless if you don’t.”
The judge smiles. “Exactly what I was thinking.” He says.
We usually agree. But not always. Sometimes, he presses me on the law, we banter back and forth. Other times, he sends me emails or calls my desk phone. “I’ve been thinking about Smith, and I see what you are saying, but let’s talk.” He says.
We do agree on this: the law doesn’t always allow us to give people a second chance, or fully right a wrong. We both hate that part. It’s the burdened privilege part of the job no one talks about.
“Well, I guess we have to look at it this way,” I say. “It’s not that the plaintiff isn’t going to get damages, it’s just they won’t get triple damages.” I try to console us both when we realize that according to the law, we must deny a motion seeking triple damages for a local childcare.
Of course, we don’t just talk about law. We talk about movies. Favorite books. Our kids. The holidays. He’s impressed I managed to come to work and then go home to cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner for my family. I can’t believe how far he drives every weekend to see his kids’ college games. He introduces me to other attorneys, other judges. And when I pass the Bar, he insists on swearing me in himself. He takes pictures with me and my family. We all eat cake and I think, “I made it. I’m a real lawyer now.”
I think about him sometimes. I think about the click clack of my heels down the hall and that Brooks Brothers suit. I remember how scared I was. I usually think about this when I’m providing legal advice in my slippers on Zoom. He helped me find my voice in the law. He showed me the kind of attorney I’d grow to be.
The day I heard he died, I burst into tears. I pulled up his last email. Just weeks before, he’d wished me and my family a Happy Thanksgiving. All the best to you and your family, he wrote. Little did I know, in just a few weeks, he’d be gone.
Now, here I am, a real lawyer. When he swore me into the Bar he asked me, in front of the court, my family, and the bystanders, did I have anything to say?
Yes, your honor. I said. Thank you. I’m grateful for this opportunity. I promise to be the best lawyer I can be. To always be a zealous advocate for my clients.
He smiled. He struck down his gavel. He looked me straight in the eye and said,
“It has been submitted.”
Sarah Normandie lives in New England. A former teacher turned attorney, Sarah currently negotiates multi-million dollar deals for a Fortune 500 Company by day and writes by night. She’s studied writing under the UCLA Writers’ Extension Program and under the direction of Hollywood story structure guru, John Truby. Her work has been featured in several publications including CommuterLit.com, Sky Island Journal, The Fictional Café, and Clinch Literary Magazine. For more of Sarah’s work and updates on her upcoming novel, check out her Substack, A Busy Lady, at https://abusylady.substack.com.